Three years ago, Cassidy “Cass” Bargell, then a first-year in Eve Wittenberg’s health-focused expository writing course, wrote an essay about what it means to be healthy.
“Her paper struck me because it was really perceptive, beyond what she maybe even realized,” recalled Wittenberg, senior research scientist at the Center for Health Decision Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School for Public Health. “We talked about it later during her own health crisis, because she basically wrote that ‘health’ is not to be as healthy as other people, but to be as healthy as you can be. Those weren’t my words; they were actually hers. That will stick with me forever.”
In November, following two months of progressively debilitating symptoms, Bargell, a captain of the varsity women’s rugby team and resident of Currier House, underwent a subtotal colectomy and temporary end ileostomy at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. The surgery removed her entire colon and surgeons attached an ostomy bag to her lower abdomen.
“It’s not who I am, but it’s part of my identity now,” said Bargell. “I want to share my story because after surgery I spent hours on the internet, looking for other people with stomas or ostomies — anyone who could show me life was going to be OK. Because I kept being told it would be, but it just wasn’t feeling OK at the time.”
An athlete with Olympic and World Cup potential, Bargell helped lead Harvard to a national championship in 2019. She spent the pandemic year training with the USA women’s rugby national team. When the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease began in October 2020, doctors couldn’t offer an immediate diagnosis. Bargell returned to campus in August 2021 in increased pain.
“I was getting progressively worse. I didn’t realize how sick I was — I had gotten so used to it over the past year,” Bargell said. “I just thought my body could handle it.”
More testing confirmed that she suffered from severe acute ulcerative colitis, which most often afflicts young people aged 15–30. Bargell hoped that medication would make the chronic disease manageable.
But she would spend the next four weeks in and out of hospitals, even taking a midterm while admitted. Eventually the integrative biology concentrator with a secondary in government withdrew from classes.
“I wasn’t living. I was staying alive, but I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. That’s when it started to get real, that I might need surgery,” Bargell said. “My first question was, ‘Can I play rugby again?’ and from the start, my surgeon at Beth Israel [Dr. Kristen Crowell] said, ‘Yes. You can do whatever you want. It’s not going to be an issue.’”